Microsoft's education-focused 'Learning Tools' sees massive growth, but have you even heard of it?

Everyone knows about Microsoft's Office which includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, One Note and other popular tools that represent the status quo for productivity. These Microsoft tools are so integral in business that knowing how to use them is a prerequisite to getting hired for many jobs. They are just that powerful and have a profound impact.

In a similar vein, Microsoft Learning Tools is a set of tools Microsoft developed just three years ago, integrated within many of its products and other platforms and are having a significant impact in improving reading and writing for millions of students worldwide.

You may be wondering "what's Microsoft Learning Tools?" Well, because Microsoft began slipping this hackathon-birthed gem into its products just three years ago, many other people may be asking that same question. In a nutshell, if you are a student, the parent of a student, an educator, an administrator of a school district or anyone who cares about the impact of technology on education Microsoft Learning Tools is for you.

Related: Microsoft's Immersive Reader tackles Dyslexia head on - and wins

What is Microsoft Learning Tools?

Microsoft Learning Tools is a set of free tools "that implement proven techniques to improve reading and writing for people regardless of their age or ability." Educators that have implemented them in their classrooms and students that have used them testify to their effectiveness in improving reading comprehension, encouraging independent reading and their ease of use.

The fact that Learning Tools is free and integrated into Microsoft products is an asset that saves cash-strapped schools from spending money on costly products to help students learn. Their seamless integration into the classroom as part of Word, OneNote and other products that all students use also precludes the stigmatization some students feel when using specialized tools to combat reading challenges like Dyslexia.

Learning Tools usage soared from 100K to 13M users in just one year.

Microsoft Learning Tools began as an add-in for OneNote. Through its headline feature Immersive Reader, it provides students with visual and audio support in reading comprehension, breaking words into syllables, identifying parts of speech and more. In Microsoft Word Learning Tools can be easily accessed by selecting the View tab, choosing the Learning Tools button then selecting the Learning Tools tab to access the same (and additional) tools found in Learning Tools for One Note. The ability to highlight text, have text read aloud, change background colors, text size and more through Learning Tools is a valuable asset to struggling readers and thier educators.

As a testimony to Learning Tools' effectiveness it has seen explosive growth. In just one year usage has soared from 100, 000 to 13 million users and over 40 languages around the world (opens in new tab). This wildfire adoption reflects the profound need it addresses and how vital this, Microsoft's "best-kept secret," is to improving reading and writing skills for students of varying abilities, learning differences and even those who are gifted.

First a Hackathon then the world

Image Credit: Microsoft

Image Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft Learning Tools began as a hackathon project in 2015, winning with what was then a OneNote add-in focused on helping people with Dyslexia. It was birthed from a desire by Microsoft's Windows Accessibility Lead Jeff Petty as an effort to build reading assistance tools directly into Microsoft technologies.

Petty said, "I just got fixated on the fact that people don't talk about cognitive impairment a lot. They don't talk about the fact that it's hard for people to read and write."

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Learning Tools headline feature, Immersive Reader was then pushed into as many Microsoft products and other platforms as possible. Educators and students all over the world began experiencing it via OneNote Class Notebooks.

Learning Tools has impacted more than students, however. Older people who have never learned to read, lawyers navigating massive legal documents, and businesses using Microsoft teams with Immersive Reader are also benefiting from the tool.

The cat's almost out of the bag

Microsoft Learning Tools is a simple but powerful set of tools, that is easily navigated and is reflective of Microsoft's mission to incorporate products seamlessly into technology rather than "tacking them on."

This seamless integration is ironically also one of the drawbacks to Microsoft Learning Tools. Not to its effectiveness or importance but to the product's visibility. Just as my editor who works for a site that covers Microsoft didn't know what I was referring to when I pitched the story, many outside of the education sector to which Learning Tools is aggressively pushed may not know of it either. As integration with other Microsoft products like real-time translation are added its value to users increases and its visibility becomes even more important.

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In addition to the 13 million people using Learning Tools millions more with access to technology at home, at libraries and other venues may be missing the benefits of Microsoft Learning Tools because the message hasn't yet reached their schools.

Perhaps on device "marketing" via Cortana or Windows can be leveraged to surface the benefits of Learning Tools as well as more traditional marketing to supplement the passionate efforts being put forth by Principal Product Manager for Microsoft Education Mike Tholfsen and others.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

  • Microsoft really don't get leverage and transition points do they? An effective marketing campaign uses these key aspects to tell a story. You can see it clear as day in Apple's commercials except the macbook commercials which they prefer to use projection these days. I use onenote almost daily and never have seen the real time translation. In regards Microsoft teams, hard to get people to use it when there is not much awareness. Which also feeds into the reduced mindshare amongst many people due to the consumer retrenchment. Secondly, there is hardly any advert about any Microsoft product in the UK. It's all Google Chrome, Android, ios and Macbooks. When there is an Microsoft advert, the next advert that follows is either about a chromebook, android phone, iphone or macbook. Right now there is a very aggressive marketing campaign for chromebooks inconjunction with Currys PC World.
  • Same story here in Australia Freak. Right now it seems that MS has no idea about the consumer market and, of course, that is Nadella's policy. Anything that focuses on consumers is starved of both resources and publicity. The end result, as you point out, is that the competition gets lots of free kicks.
  • The only thing worth advertising is Surface hardware. Microsoft has market dominance in the Desktop OS and Office Productivity markets. Marketing budget for those products isn't going to give much returns. They can advertise their services directly in the software, as they have been doing. Why pay for something you can get for free. 90% of the world has Windows PCs. Microsoft can pop up ads and suggestions whenever they're at the PC, when they are sure they are watching and paying attention. I can't remember the last time I cared about a TV advertisement. I barely watch television. We usually switch channels to something else interesting during the commercials, Lol. ChromeBooks and Pixel phones are hardware. Macs, iPads, iPhones, and Apple Watches are hardware. Those companies aren't breaking the bank advertising "software features." Some services get advertised, like Apple Music and Apple Pay... but Microsoft killed their Music service and I'm still not sure if Microsoft Pay, Wallet (whatever they call it) is an actual thing so... yea.
  • @n8ter#AC.
    Android has taken over Windows as the most interacted O/S. The other psychological aspect of adverts is that it shows OEMs and app developers you are serious about growing the user base, therefore keen to generate more income for the aforesaid OEMs and devs. Yes, people know about office, windows, surface and xbox but beyond these? Nada, nothing, zilch. Most people don't still mentally associate skype with Microsoft. That is both a good and bad thing. The consumer retrenchment has costed them heavily in the education market, especially in the US. Which ironically they have been focusing heavily on. Speaking of US only, Microsoft Pay is still isolated to the US. I am not saying they shouldn't advertise within their products but what happens when they reach a saturation point, how do they grow the user base beyond that? You need to think at least 10 steps ahead of the competition, sure Microsoft is doing that (somewhat) but not all of it is singing from the same hymn sheet. Overly focusing on ios and android is costing them surface sales too (along with Windows 10 growth). As after point people get entrenched in the ios or android ecosystem. Which Microsoft is whole heartedly enabling at the cost of their entire ecosystem and everything they had been working towards since the days of DOS. So they must re-engage consumers more aggressively than before - this lackadaisical approach won't cut it. I'd list afew transition points and leverage point's Microsoft can use but due to WM10 app it'll plastered as a wall of text. I'm waiting on a PCI Gigabit Ethernet card and usb Ethernet adapter. My PC motherboard is on it's last legs and I'm not going to spend much in keeping it running. When my PC is uo and running, I'll add the examples.
  • Microsoft Pay will remain isolated since they do not have a mobile presence. Google Pay has mobile presence and thus, more useful.
  • That doesn't mean, they shouldn't bring it to other countries. People are still using Windows phones. Also the Surface Go has NFC built-in. Microsoft pay can be used as e-merchant platform, for example.
  • Devs only care about statistics.
    Fans care about "show people how serious you are". Showing how serious you are might not always work. Xbox brand will never thrive in Japan no matter how hard you try.
    PSV is dead years ago, and there's no way to revive it.
  • Great paying attention to this.
  • Good tip
  • This feature is available to Office 365 Subscribers only.
  • Really?
    I had the office 365 sub for awhile and didnot see the real time translator feature in onenote. I cancelled it as I use my phone for work and everything else.
  • This article was brought to you by Microsoft Corporation, Redmond.
  • This is the Windows Central web site. They write stories about Windows. Troll someplace else.
  • Same story here in Australia Freak. Right now it seems that MS has no idea about the consumer market and, of course, that is Nadella's policy. Anything that focuses on consumers is starved of both resources and publicity. The end result, as you point out, is that the competition gets lots of free